The human animal is a terrible listener.
Allow me to correct that statement. The average human animal is a terrible listener. Good thing those of you who already follow this blog are clearly ahead of the game. Everyone else? Not so much. So, let’s get everybody else up to speed, shall we? Because certainly the need to improve listening skills does not pertain to you, just them. Those people. The ones who don’t know how to listen.
But just in case you’re not quite sure about the level and quality of your own listening skills, here are 5 steps you can take to ensure you listen like a jackass. Let’s see how you measure up.
1. ASSume that everybody sees and experiences the world just like you. If they have a different opinion, they must be mistaken. Don’t waste your valuable time listening to others’ points of view to try to understand how they came to think or feel the way they do. Of course your perspective is the right perspective. How can anyone else’s experiences possibly affect how he or she views and interprets the world around him or her? And when another person dares to try to offer a different opinion that conflicts with your own? Don’t even bother to listen because it’s obvious that your experiences that have shaped how you view and interpret the world are the only legitimate and valid experiences to take into consideration. All other opinions are invalid.
2. Appease the other person talking to you by providing those “feedback” markers that are guaranteed to fool him or her into thinking that you’re actually paying attention. For example, just make sure you continue to nod in confirmation and say “uh-huh” every minute or so. This will absolutely help improve all of your relationships, personal and professional alike. Not to mention it will free up brain space to think about other things. That’s what you should be doing anyway when someone else is talking. After all, you’re a busy person and can’t be bothered with taking the time to completely focus on the person right in front of you or the person who’s on the phone with you. You can partially listen to that person while you think about other things. It’s easy. You’re great at multitasking. Besides, everybody knows if it’s really important, they should just post it on Facebook anyway.
3. React as emotionally as possible when someone says something you don't agree with or uses language you don’t like. Listening for the meaning behind the message is a waste of time. And really, can anyone blame you for becoming emotional and reacting whenever anyone says something you don’t like or uses language you don’t like? They should know not to use certain words around you anyway. They should know those words will trigger an emotional response. So you shouldn't be held responsible for your own actions after that point. As soon as someone says something that irritates or offends you, immediately react with an emotional response. As a matter of fact, it’s always a good idea to let them know that you’re listening carefully by also providing a physical response, like a slap across the face or a hole in the wall. That will absolutely give them the feedback that says you are listening and in complete control of yourself. Everyone knows that the best decisions are made with emotional reactions, not careful listening and critical thinking.
4. Listen literally. Always. Take everything you hear literally and at face value. After all, human beings are really robotic creatures by nature right? There’s no depth to them. There’s no need to pay attention to little things like intonation, eye contact, body posture, or facial expressions. Those are unimportant. You keep everything at the surface level, so too should everyone else. If your partner says that he or she is happy, then don’t worry about the shoulder shrug and lack of enthusiasm that came along with that statement. After all, if they really aren't happy or if they disagree with something you just said, wouldn't they just come right out and say it? Why should you have to pay attention to anything else other than what is actually said? It’s exhausting looking for nonverbal cues. If only everyone could be a literal as you are with everything you say, then your relationships would work so much better.
5. Listen defensively. You are fully aware that a vast majority of the time, whenever other people are talking, they are talking about you. And they are usually doing so in a negative manner. You are not only a product of, but you are the center of this universe that is filled with negativity. That's not your fault. The co-worker who just asked if you would be able to meet the deadline is clearly inferring that you’re incapable of getting your work done on time. Surely they weren’t thinking about offering help or perhaps seeing if an extension would be possible. When your partner asks you how long you’ll be out while running errands or meeting up with friends, it’s not because he or she is making plans for dinner or figuring out how much time they have to run their own errands. Clearly it’s because they’re being nosy and just want to control you. Perceiving everything as a personal attack is actually the most helpful listening skill to develop. After all, the negativity is in everyone else’s attitude, not your own.
I spend a lot of time talking to people about how to develop better and more effective communication skills in and out of the classroom. I've talked with high school kids as well as corporate managers, friends as well as business colleagues, family members as well as strangers. After all this time, I've noticed something interesting…and disturbing.
Let’s face it, most people’s idea of improving their own communication skills involves learning how to get others to listen and follow directions better and more often. Don’t agree with me? Do any of these questions sound familiar?
“How do I get the board to adopt my proposal?”
“How do I get my boss to listen to my ideas?”
“How do I get my mom to stop nagging me?”
Are you seeing a trend here? No? Here are some more examples.
“How do I get my husband to give me more compliments?”
“How do I get my girlfriend to leave me alone during the game?”
“How do I get others to understand me better?”
See a trend yet? If not, we have a lot of work to do. Here are a few more examples.
“How do I deal with this jerk at work?”
“How do I deal with this jerk at home?”
“How do I convince my teenager to do her chores?”
Figured it out yet? Let me help you. And pay attention because my message will be a subtle one.
GET OVER YOURSELF. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU.
There. I said it. You see, here’s the true problem. Most people aren't really interested in improving their own communication skills. I mean, they think they want to improve their communication skills, but what they really want is compliance. It’s true you see a lot of “I” statements above that give the perception of "self-improvement," but keep reading. There’s a whole lot of focus on creating change in the other person and not on the self. Many people make this mistake. They think they want to improve their own communication skills, but they really just want to find a way to get what they want. If this is your mindset, then congratulations, you are already a member of the jackass school of communication.
Please don’t get me wrong, we all need effective communication skills in order to be more successful in our business and personal relationships, but it’s not all about how we can speak better, use more power poses, dress better for success, or make stronger eye contact. It’s really about how often we can shut our mouths and how well we listen.
Huh? Not the answer you were looking for? Looking for the quick, 5-step program to communication success? That’s the lame blog you’ll find on your next Google search. You want to get the real deal? Keep reading here.
You see, listening is the primary key to being a good communicator. And it’s the most underrated communication skill we have. It's the one communication act we perform every single day more than any other communication act, yet we still manage to ignore its importance. Everyone is so busy trying to figure out how to impress others through their outward communication, they've forgotten how important the skill of listening really is. I blame social media. But let's move on.
Here’s my advice. Quit worrying about the outward communication stuff for now. We know speaking clearly and getting your point across concisely is important, but if you want to get to the core of being a good communicator, you have to stop focusing on yourself and your needs and start focusing on others and their needs. How does one accomplish this? Well, allow me…
1. You have to want to listen. None of this will work if you don’t truly want to listen to the other person. I can hear the naysayers already. “But what if I really really really don’t care about what that person has to say?” Well, my question to you is, why in the hell are you in a conversation with this person to begin with? Why don't you want to listen? What's the problem? Are you afraid of what they might say? Do you think your opinion is the only one that counts? Have you "heard it all before?" You want to be a better communicator? No, I'm asking you. Do you want to be a better communicator? Start here. Start by understanding that you don’t know it all. You don’t have all the answers. You don’t know anything really…other than what others tell you. So start wanting to listen. Appreciate the fact that others' perceptions will help you improve your own understanding of the world around you. If you don’t want to listen, then you don’t really want to be a better communicator.
2. Focus on listening. No really, put down the damn smart phone and quit checking it every 5 seconds while someone is talking to you. Turn off the freaking TV and quit surfing the net while you’re talking to someone over the phone. Trust me; you’re not going to miss much, except for what that person in front of you is telling you. You are engaged in a conversation with another human being. You say you want to be a better communicator so prove it now. We are bombarded with distractions every second of the day. Being a good listener requires you to give that person your full attention, not just a part of it.
3. Determine what type of listening you should be using. Now this is where the real fun begins. Most communication scholars will break down the different types of listening into multiple styles. We've got empathic listening, critical listening, pseudo listening, comprehensive listening, appreciative listening, discriminative listening, etc. etc. etc. I want to keep it simple, so we’ll just break it down into two types for now – critical and empathic. The first type is when you are evaluating what the person is saying and drawing a conclusion about the topic. The latter is when you are listening to help support the relationship and to provide emotional support. They are two completely different ways to listen and yes, you can listen wrong. We've all employed both listening styles, but chances are we've used them incorrectly and at the wrong time. For example, I know it's hard to believe, but not everybody actually wants you to solve their problems. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty presumptuous of you to think that you would have the answer anyway. If someone’s griping about a problem, just listen. Let them vent. Haven’t you ever just wanted to vent? Tell them you can see why they’re upset (even if you can’t understand it). But what if you think they really do want your help in solving their problem?
4. Continue to listen and keep your mouth shut. Remember, this isn't about you, it’s about them. If they eventually ask you for your opinion, tread carefully. Instead of jumping right in and offering the solution, ask them what they think they should do about it first. Prompt them with questions, not answers. Don’t think of yourself as the person who has the answer. Think of yourself as the person who can help them discover the answer for themselves. When you learn to communicate with others, instead of at others, you will begin to be viewed by others as a good communicator. And then, only then, will you be able to wield that influence you're so desperate to have.
So the next time you start saying you want to improve your communication skills, ask yourself why. And then, shut your pie hole and listen.
Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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